Thursday 31 December 2009

The Lonesome Touch

[photo: a lonesome pool near Mt Rogoona, Central north-west Tasmania]

[I am fascinated by the interface between music, movement and mood. This is a companion piece to "Dancing on Dolerite" - see November 09 archive]

Fiddler Martin Hayes’ 1997 album, The Lonesome Touch, contains what I consider one of the masterpieces of modern Irish folk music. The third track, a long set of tunes played on fiddle by Martin Hayes with Dennis Cahill on guitar, is simply exquisite: the perfect accompaniment to a reluctant morning walk, and a primer in optimism for melancholics. A few chime-like notes on the guitar lead into a mournfully slow rendition of the fiddle tune Paul Ha'penny. This gentle and somehow irresistible invitation to raise your weary head from the pillow, is followed by a still slow, but lifting jig The Garden Of Butterflies, with Hayes’ fiddle beginning to lilt more, and Cahill’s guitar strokes gaining in complexity.

Then to the reel The Broken Pledge, on which the audibly tapping foot and more up-tempo guitar give fair warning that the pace of life can’t stay slow forever. Like it or not your heart is pumping once again, so if your feet aren’t walking or dancing already, they’ll surely be tapping. Hayes is not a fiddler who tries to play at warp speed, but the friendly lilt of the tune belies the fact that he’s working hard. So too with the next tune, The Mother And Child Reel, where the delightfully syncopated beat continues to banish the cobwebs. If head and heart aren’t yet in sync then the closing reel, the classic Toss The Feathers, will ensure they are. And your feet will surely follow. By the time this amazing eleven minute set concludes you’re ready to fall to the ground exhausted, or climb to the top of the nearest mountain, or cry for joy; perhaps all three. That old scoundrel melancholy has been banished for another day.

Some music can do that for you, and its moods and movements seem so appropriate as an accompaniment for walking. Hayes, something of a philosopher on fiddling, believes that neither great speed nor brilliant technique is enough to make a great fiddler. Rather he seeks for that “lonesome touch” that is the heart and soul of fiddling.

Hayes explains it this way.

The Lonesome Touch is a phrase I have heard in my native County Clare all my life. . . . It is the intangible aspect of music that is both elusive and essential. The word lonesome expresses a sadness, a blue note, a sour note. Even though the music bares the trace of struggle and of pain, it is also the means of uplift, transcendence to joy and celebration.

The lonesome touch is something that is difficult to achieve. One is forced to put the requirements of the music before all personal considerations, to play honestly from the heart with no motive other than the selfless expression of joy and beauty for their own sake.

In the opinion of many Hayes’ ability to find that soul in the music is his particular genius.

So much of that philosophy seems to apply also to walking. Speed, technique, equipment – these aren’t the soul of a good walk. Really seeing what’s around you; dealing with the limitations of your body, your exhaustion, the weather; working with rather than against those you walk with; putting the requirements of the walk ahead of your personal considerations; these are part of the soul of walking. Only then can you find that “lonesome touch” that lifts bushwalking out of being just another activity and into the soul-nourishing realms.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

The Apprentice Cuckoo

[a fan-tailed cuckoo - Cacomantis flabelliformis]

[a new piece reflecting on birds, people and life in general]

"Science may have defined life too small" - Rachel Remen

Is the natural world indifferent to humans? Is it merely a blank canvas on which we project our thoughts and feelings: things about which it is both oblivious and unconcerned? Or is there a little more to our place in this world than to be mere passive observers?

Anthropomorphic projection shows up in talk of wallabies “browsing happily” or of march flies “buzzing angrily”, even if such talk has scant basis in science. Those creatures do what they do for their own good reasons, and human emotions like happiness and anger probably have little or nothing to do with it.

Why then do most rational humans NOT resist the tendency to project their thoughts and feelings onto the world around them? Does a mountain really “glower defiantly”? Was Mt Everest actually the “bugger” that Hillary called it?

One spring I was tormented by a particularly fraught decision. It kept me awake – or woke me up – at all sorts of hours of the night. Our local bush was so filled with fan-tailed cuckoos that it became my cuckoo spring. The male cuckoo has a strong whistling trill which carries great distances in the bush, alerting female cuckoos to both his presence and his potential.

The trill has a melancholy downward trend. But there I go again, using a word like “melancholy” where it rationally may not belong. When I consult bird references I find that I am not alone. They variously describe the call as “mournful”, “sad” or “plaintive”.

But does a cuckoo feel sorrow? Surely this usurper of other nests has no such feelings (or so the anthropomorphic argument might go). All I know is that I have always felt a tinge of sadness on hearing the first cuckoo in spring (to follow Frederick Delius). To add to this my own mother died one spring, and I strongly remember hearing cuckoos in the months that followed. Even as a man in my fifties, my own sad reflections included thoughts of being alone in the nest.

During that cuckoo spring, an increase in their population meant there was a great deal of competition. I assume that’s why one young cuckoo – I came to think of him as the apprentice cuckoo – trilled all through the night. Apparently they occasionally do this, but it’s the first time I’ve been fully awake to experience a bird calling right through the night. I found my own melancholy magnified by the L-plate trill of my apprentice cuckoo.

His voice would stumble, miss a few steps of the ladder, then break off half-way – so much like an adolescent boy that I smiled in amusement despite my troubled state. He kept up these faltering efforts all that night and much of the next. I covered my head with a pillow, but still found my amusement turned to grudging admiration. Had I known more at the time, I would have listened for the shorter “chiree” response call from the female birds. That might have signalled that his yearning persistence was paying off, winning him a mate. I will never know whether his departure signalled success, or simply that he had left for a greener tree beyond the reach of my ears.

I realise now that I always feel a frisson of sadness in response to certain bird calls. The tawny frogmouth’s eerie night-time booming; the spotted pardalote’s downward drooping, double-noted “pee-paw”; even the forest raven’s “lascivious” carking has a world-weary downward inflection. Part of the science here may be that downward trending music has – for humans – an inherent sadness, just as human crying and wailing usually have a downward inflection.

But do bird calls, like human accents, also in part reflect the environment in which they develop? Let’s face it, much of the Australian environment is far from the “green and pleasant land” of England, for instance. If this is true, then the equation becomes: a harsh land = harsh accents. If life is no walk in the park, should we expect sweet voices?

All of this may be a partial explanation – even some justification – for anthropomorphism. But I think there is something more going on here. Our major tool as human beings is our use of language. We use words to make sense of each other, to put order on our society and on the world around us. We even invented metaphor to enhance distinctions and draw comparisons. And at our most basic we simply tell stories – and always have.

Some of those stories will project a character on landscapes, birds and beasts. I have heard such stories from the Adnyamathanha people in the Flinders Ranges. Their tales are peopled by the animals they see all around them, and each animal carries a metaphorical as well as a biological cargo. So when an Adnyamathanha child sees a crow, for instance, there are several stories, with in-built moral lessons, that the child can “read” from the crow.

Granted this is not “scientific” knowledge of the corvus genus. But it is knowledge nonetheless, and it carries a truth that works. Because one result of such story-telling is a caring for crows, and an identification of ourselves with them as co-creatures in the world of nature.

Perhaps in my cuckoo spring, I was story-making in my own way: preferentially taking note of cuckoos rather than kookaburras. Hearing and identifying with the yearning and sadness in the call of the apprentice cuckoo. Sometimes you just don’t have ears to hear the kookaburra’s laugh.

Friday 11 December 2009

No Such Thing As Bad Weather

[photo: high in the Kepler Mountains, New Zealand]

[more thoughts on walking and weather]

My colleague and friend, Cathie, has waged a war of words with terms like “bad weather”. One of her favourite quotes is from Joseph Wood Krutch:

The good thing about the country is . . . that we don’t have any bad weather at all – only a number of different kinds of good.

And Cathie’s right. The wild parts of Tasmania, New Zealand, Alaska and places like them would not look as they do; would not have the same plants and animals; wouldn’t even have the same topography, were it not for the weather. Mountains, forests and fiords come at a climatological cost.

That’s not to say that we always want to be out in the wilds when it’s blowing a gale and sleeting or snowing. But we recognise that such weather in an inherent part of the wild country that is so attractive to walkers. We adapt to the weather, not the other way around. One way to do that is to have good all weather gear, and/or to develop a positive duck-like attitude. Another is to have the flexibility to walk when the weather is expected to be fine. In that regard long-range internet weather forecasts are a great thing. I use them all the time, and they have made a big difference to my walking. For a start they can give warning of extreme conditions that are best avoided, although some familiarity with meteorology and lots of experience of local conditions is still important.

My ideal scenario in Tasmania is to start a walk on the tail-end of a cold front, especially when it looks as though it will be followed by a large, slow-moving high pressure system. This will usually bring calmer conditions, cool nights, and clear days. So while you may start the walk in cloudy or rainy conditions, the promise is that the high will come to the rescue. If it does the result will be a few days of clear weather when you’re actually among the mountains. With the exception of masochists and wilderness photographers in search of “artist’s light”, this is bliss for a bushwalker. And occasionally it does work out that way, although the weather gods often have the last laugh, and a bushwalker’s best-laid plans go oft astray. In the end we have to accept that we don’t control the weather, and making the most of it bears more fruit than shaking a fist at it.

Four days on New Zealand’s Kepler Track, west of Te Anau in Fiordland National Park, proved a good example. In Fiordland you can wait a long time for a forecast indicating a spell of clear weather. This part of the world measures its annual rainfall in metres, not millimetres, and the roaring forties bite particularly hard around here. But in planning to walk the Kepler Track, I did have some flexibility with dates. So I sat on the long-range forecasts for days trying to pick a four day period that might translate into clear weather for at least the day spent in the alpine section, at around 1400m. As I read the forecasts, I prevaricated, planned, replanned, and prevaricated again. Yes, it was spring, but the procession of cold and/or wet weather systems seemed interminable. And not knowing how this would play out on local weather patterns made it hard to commit. I wanted to pay due respect to the potential for wild weather up in those mountains. But eventually taking both local advice and the plunge, I booked the walk. We chose to do the loop walk in the less usual clockwise direction. Forecasts indicated clearer weather for day 3, the alpine day. If we went in the other direction, we’d be up there on day 2, which looked dire.

It turned out my choice was both right and wrong. Wrong because it snowed on and off throughout our entire alpine day. And right because the day before did turn out to be a savage, wet and windy day. Walkers we met at the walk’s half-way point, the Iris Burn Hut, told us they’d been literally blown over by gale-force winds. Some had even lost equipment, blown off the mountain by the wind. And they’d seen almost nothing through the rain and flying cloud in the head-down hurry to get off the mountain. And our snowy day? Well that was the other part of being wrong. Had I been invited to walk for 8 hours through sleet and snow – more than half of it steeply up hill – I probably would have declined. Yet it turned out to be one of the most brilliant days of walking I’ll ever experience.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Why We Walk

[walking near Crescent Bay, Tasmania]

[some draft material from my walking book]

Why do we walk? And what is it that tempts some of us to walk long distances? Why bother with the sweat and strain of it when there are plenty of other things to do in life? If we must move from A to B, surely there are easier and quicker alternatives than walking. Didn’t our ancestors invent the wheel for that reason?

My granddaughter Sophy prompted me to ask a different question: How can we NOT walk? She had not quite learned to walk at the age of one. Around that time she and her family were staying with us for Easter. Previously a sweet-natured and laid-back child, Sophy seemed out of sorts, and spent quite a bit of the Easter week making an unholy racket for no apparent reason. From her high chair; from the car seat; from the standing, crawling or sitting position, she would squawk without warning a little too loudly for anybody’s comfort.

A month later she started walking, and a few weeks after that we visited her again. The audible difference was amazing. Our sweet Sophy was back. The reason? According to her mother it was simply that now she could walk. Her earlier frustration had arisen from her inability to move in the way most of us do.

We are made for walking.

We are bipeds, and we are physiologically designed to get around on two feet. It’s easy to take for granted, but very few other animals are bipedal. Even our near relatives, the chimpanzees, are essentially quadrupedal. They get around by knuckle-walking on all fours. While that’s more energy efficient than human running over short distances, human bipedal walking is far more energy efficient over longer distances.

In evolutionary terms bipedalism would have conferred an adaptive advantage on hominids, especially when food resources were scarce. Bipeds would have expended less energy moving from one food source to another. And standing upright would have added to that advantage by allowing them to spot food from further away.

As an Australian, in a hot, dry land of dispersed food resources, I can appreciate the need for energy efficient movement. In fact the bounding gait of some of our marsupial mammals is thought to be to an adaptation that allows greater energy efficiency over long distances. The large muscle-bound back legs of kangaroos and wallabies have been shown to use less effort per mile than “standard model” herbivorous mammals such as deer and cattle.

Despite all of that, I can’t see pogo sticks succeeding among the bushwalking fraternity. But it is fascinating to think about how we and other animals move. I once intently watched sea gulls flying. Their undulating and ragged progress reminded me of our walking. Instead of preventing falling by putting the next foot forward, the chubby birds stop an altogether more catastrophic surrender to gravity by the flapping of their wings. Each time the belly is hitched skyward, only to droop again towards the ground at the end of the upward stroke, before again being lifted higher by the downward movement of its wings. Presumably all this is done on a bellyfull of fish, and without any more conscious thought than our own walking.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

The Stilled Soul

[an artful seat, Tulampanga/Alum Cliffs, Tasmania]

[a piece written for a catalogue of artwork produced by artists in residence in Tasmania's national parks - 1999]

The landscapes we inhabit, the places we live, are not the simple, fixed things we sometimes take them to be. So called solid rock might have its origins in a slow and capricious accumulation of fine sediment. It may have gone through aeons of dark depression; ages of lethargic uplift and tedious down-wearing. Only then might its brief era in the sunlit lands have come.

On another time-scale altogether, a cicada that sings its way through a summer's day might have spent 7 long years beneath the ground before reaching its final flighted form. And that form will last just a few days, given favourable weather and luck with predators.

In childhood my friends and I were sometimes predators unaware. We would seek out the shilling-sized cicada holes in our lawns and flood them to try and bring the insects out. We reasoned that all those years in the nymphal stage wouldn't be hurt by staging a bogus summer flood. And up they would come like spirits from the grave - scarcely in the same form as the creatures they would become. A stiff but sodden brown caul held them prisoner still.

Yet given time and careful handling some of them would dry out and gradually begin their amazing metamorphosis. We would never tire of this unveiling, fascinated as much by the metaphysics as the physics, even if unable to articulate it. When it was all over we took the empty shell as a talisman.

The hiddenness of the world around us can sometimes yield to science - even such blundering childhood science. Careful observation and judicious reading can peel back the layers of familiarity with which our world disguises its wonders. But science will never reveal all. When we think about the places we know and love, it is obvious that the sciences neither encompass nor describe them with anything like satisfaction. Time and again they slip out of the lasso of logic, running free in some parallel universe of their own.

Yet notice how we can be transported instantly back to such places by a sound - a bird call, a radio song; or by a scent - whether rare perfume or mere insect repellant. The world's hiddennness can be revealed in many such unexpected ways.

While science may sit uncomfortably with such revelations, the arts are quite at home. They can play a role in interpreting places that science can't. From the arts poetry may still flow when prose has dried up. By this I do not mean to imply that science is solely for the head and art purely for the heart. Both speak to the intellect. Still we might expect the arts to speak more to the emotional side of our intellect than the logical side.

In hosting the Dombrovskis Wilderness Residencies, the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service is recognising that we need to be aware of not only the science but also the art of place. These are different ways of seeing, but they can be complementary rather than conflicting. The arts in all their forms can help to give a more complete picture of the places that inspire us.

Although the tryst between artist and place is an ancient one, it is not necessarily well understood. Nor is it predestined to succeed. Special places can remain mute, and artists uninspired in the face of much-anticipated encounters.

In the 1940s E.H. Burgmann, Anglican Bishop of Canberra/Goulburn, reflected on the special places of his own upbringing. He likened a forest at dawn to a baby stirring out of sleep.

"Presently the babe is fully awake and all the dwellers of the bush loose their tongues. Bellbirds, whipbirds, and all sorts of birds enjoy their songs, and as they make high festival the lyrebird can mimic them all. Nature must be taken as a whole. It speaks through its birds, it lives in its animals; man can only join in on Nature's own terms. He can sit and listen and let his fancy run free. He will grow more reverent as his sensitiveness to the presence grows. He will feel privileged to have been admitted into the audience of Nature's moods. Birds and animals may even come to feel that he to some extent belongs to their exclusive world.

It is foolish for man to think of Nature as below him. If he lives in the bush long enough he will find that reverence is the only worthy attitude. But the bush will take its own time to do the work. It will not speak to a man in a hurry. Its message is worth waiting for. Only the soul that is stilled in its presence can hear the music of its song.
" (E.H. Burgmann, The Education of an Australian, Angus & Robertson, 1944)

The works represented in this exhibition are the result of hard labour. We should never so romanticise the arts that we imagine works dropping from the sky fully-formed and ready for display. But neither should we imagine that such works can be mined from the cosmos through sheer perspiration. If Bishop Burgmann is right, it may take a great deal of patience; a willingness to listen; a capacity to be still. Such openness is a kind of spiritual labour.

The places these artists have lived and worked in have demanded much of them. Some have found that there is more at stake in this stilling of the soul than the generation of mere amusements. The best of the works represented here are the beginnings of a great labour. It is a labour that wills to find a place for humans in relation to the natural world; and to see what of lasting significance can be attached to human existence.

It involves effort because wild places can overwhelm us by their seeming indifference to our existence. Every day that the cosmos confronts us with our insignificance; every morning that finds us trapped between earth and sky is a reminder of life’s paradox. We are of the earth, yet we are spirit; mortal yet longing for immortality; impossibly small yet aching for significance. Through art - among other things - we seek to explore this spiritual paradox. We look to somehow say “yes” to the cosmos; to make life significant.

Early in the Christian era saints withdrew to the desert wilderness to hear more clearly the voice of God. These hermits - the word derives from the Greek word for "desert" - often preserved a clearer view of what life was truly about than their sophisticated urban peers. In saying “no” they found their “yes”. We would do well to hear what answers these artists have brought back from the wilderness.

Monday 30 November 2009

To Have and to Hold?

[Photo: getting to know our local Hobart bush]

[some experimental thinking about loving the environment]

Acquisitiveness is one of the besetting sins of the 21st century. Our desire to acquire, buy, possess, consume, seems out of all proportion to any actual need we have. As Sir Paul McCartney put it early post-Beatles: Buy, buy! Says the sign in the shop window. Why? Why? Says the junk in the yard. This acquisitiveness extends well beyond our spending patterns, and into a consumptive attitude towards things that money can’t buy. It seems that making lists and ticking them off is inherently satisfying to us as humans. So twitchers tick off birds; hikers tick off peaks; trainspotters tick off trains; more than a few of us even tick off relationships.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has described contemporary life as "liquid modernity" (a metaphor for the never-static, always adapting nature of contemporary living). It is based on the idea that, whereas Modernity (ie. from the Industrial Revolution) was fuelled by production, Liquid Modernity (others say Postmodernity) is fuelled by consumption.

Bauman mentions many sites of consumption: experiences, hobbies, relationships. He focuses on the fact that liquid-modern consumption is not based on subsistence, or on need, or even on want, but on desire. He talks about desire having an almost spiritual force – “desire desires desire" – to illustrate the way in which it isn't the goods of consumption that drive us to consume; it is the experience of desiring them. For example:

We shop for … the resources for doing faster the things that are to be done and for things to do in order to fill the time thus vacated; for the most mouth-watering foods and the most effective diet to dispose of the consequences of eating them; for the most powerful hi-fi amplifiers and the most effective headache pills. There is no end to this shopping list.
(Bauman 2000:74).]

Bauman also differentiates love from desire. The latter “is an impulse to strip alterity of its otherness; thereby, to disempower.” (p9 of “Liquid Love” – Polity, 2003). “Love is, on the other hand, the wish to care, and to preserve the object of the care. A centrifugal impulse, unlike centripetal desire.” (p9)

One implication of a consumptive attitude is that the object of our desire is disposable once acquired. “Desire desires desire”, so once the thrill of the chase is passed, we lose interest and move on. It’s not actually far-fetched to think of a mountain, a district, an ecosystem, a species, as disposable given the way we presently treat much of the natural environment.

So what to do about it? How do we counter this strong and potentially destructive trait? That word desire is central in this context. Much Buddhist philosophy focuses on the undesirability of desire. And desire would seem to be the villain in this case. If we can only cease to desire, we will overcome its negative force, personally as well as environmentally.

Notwithstanding the many attractions of Buddhist thought, I remain stubbornly persuaded by aspects of Christian thought here. Consider the following extended analogy from another arena in which desire runs deep: human relationships. In some Christian marriage rites – the Anglican and Roman Catholic, for instance – a couple will give themselves to each other with the words “to have and to hold”. The words, with their overtones of possession, seem to pander to desire, and to our acquisitive side. That disposable relationships all-too-often result seems to say little in favour of “having and holding” as a model for anything. But I want to argue that one of the geniuses of marriage, in its ideal, is that it is a covenant of mutuality. What one asks of the other, one also promises to give.

What would it be like if humans made a covenant with nature that was genuinely mutual? If we gave ourselves to the natural environment “to have and to hold”, and only then asked the same of it? If we took what we needed from the environment only because we had covenanted to give back in generous proportions. Anyone in a marriage-like relationship will know that the give and take is never precise and equal. But in good relationships there is a desire to look out for the other, knowing that the other is looking out for you. That is surely a central aspect of love. So rather than trying to knock over our desire in relation to nature, this model would ask for a loving, mutual and generous attitude towards nature.

Extending the analogy, it seems both appropriate and necessary to particularise what we mean by nature; to narrow the covenant down to a particular place or set of places. This will usually be our own local district, with all of its particularities of rock, water, soil, flora, fauna and form. This specificity will nail our colours to the mast, and prevent our love of nature from ranking alongside such vague niceties as wanting to end world poverty.

Loving your own district first doesn’t exclude you from loving other places any more than a healthy loving relationship stops you from loving other people. But it does mean that there is a primacy of love and loyalty to that home place, to your place (and I use the possessive advisedly, and in the mutual loving rather than purely possessive sense). One implication of this is that it acknowledges what many peoples – especially indigenous peoples – sense. And that is that a place, a land, can actually own you.

In his marvellous book “The Secret Life of Trees”, Colin Tudge talks about the indigenous mateiros of the Brazilian rainforests. They know and recognise hard-to-identify tree types in much the same way as most of us know and recognise a family member. Even when expert botanists fail with identification, a mateiro will not. That is the kind of familiarity with – and indeed love of – place that is likely to make you its strong advocate.

So loving your own place means that you take real notice of it; you know what fits where; you know what is happening from season to season; you chuckle – and possibly grumble - at its little peculiarities. But you love it! You rejoice in what it gives to you and yours. And because your covenant is mutual, you also give back to the place. You become its advocate and its defender from outside threat.

Monday 23 November 2009


[a piece about a trip into the remote south-west of Tasmania]

Parts of Tasmania’s coast are almost grammatical in their punctuations, indents and bracketed views. It makes them hard for even the most literate sailor to read. Southwest Cape is one such place: a remote exclamation mark on a rugged coast, an outpost of granite standing abrupt at the bottom left corner of the state. It is the end of the south coast, and the start of the west coast; the two wildest parts of Tasmania joined at the one point; the alpha and omega of the south-west wilderness.

On foot, reaching it is no simple task. From Melaleuca or Cox Bight - the nearest you will get even by light aircraft - it is still two days of ruggedly beautiful undulations away. All the while you are walking towards Tasmania's weather quarter; preparing to beard the lion in his den. When there's rain nowhere else, the far south-west still has it. "Showers in the far south-west; fine elsewhere."

My first view of the Cape had been from the nearby Ironbound Range some years before. While light clouds scudded over that range, they gathered dark and drear around the Cape. On that occasion I was glad not to be headed there. This time, by some perverse choice, it is my destination. There will be no “elsewhere".

The relatively bare granite of the promontory covers only its last kilometre or so. The rest of the way is barred by scrub. There is only a thin pad to mark the way, and that easily lost in the rain and mist. The arrow-shaped promontory slants south-west towards Antarctica, the narrower the further you go, until it tapers to nothing. The seas pounding this coast have not touched land since South America. They mean to be noticed.
Around our campsite, only salt-tolerant plants will grow because of the insistent salt-laden winds. Though we are at least 100 metres above sea level, a few days without rain has turned the creek water brackish, naturally polluted by the salt winds. The water flavours all our cooking, and is barely drinkable. It is strange to feel such thirst in a place so shaped by water.

There are other thirsts that can be more easily satisfied here, though. Unless you're a sailor, seeing an Australian sunset over the sea is largely the privilege of Western Australians. But the geography of this place allows me to share this wonder.

and every day you gaze upon the sunset
with such love and intensity
it's's almost as if
if you could only crack the code
then you'd finally understand what this all means.

We recline on the rough-grained, rounded granite slabs, awaiting that marvellous plunge of sun into sea. The suck and surge of waves speaks the language of patience. The sea has no need for haste - but it will wear down this battlement.

The next day is windy - that at least was predictable, here in the path of the “Roaring Forties”. More surprisingly, it is also fine. We've planned to go to the very end of the cape, but discover that our rope is too short to allow a descent to that last rock. Instead we sit back for a while to watch, listen, feel this special place.
After a time the wind brings odd sounds with it. At first I dismiss it as the sucking sound of waves beneath the rocks. But then I see its source. There on the rocks, about 50 metres diagonally below us, is a haul-out of seals. They are probably New Zealand fur seals - glad to be out of the surging Southern Ocean for a while - lolling about in the lee of the cape.

We watch for an hour or more - far more fascinating to me than climbing. We even begin, with the aid of binoculars, to discern some of the personalities of the group. There's an old and intolerant bull, which bellows at any pups disturbing his sunny reverie. The pups are the embodiment of hyperactivity, chasing and nipping each other, practising with sinuous ease their aquatic skills in and out of the wash and swash of the shore.
All previous human generations would have seen these seals with different eyes. Watching would have been only for the purpose of ensuring greater surprise at the attack. There are different ways of seeing wildlife, but these days it is harder to justify or understand the exploitative ways.

* from Jane Siberry’s song “Calling All Angels

Friday 20 November 2009

To What Shall We Liken Lichen?

[a playful poem for the Christmas season]

When creation seemed at a perfect end,

and any self-respecting creator

would have packed up and gone home satisfied,

Our God winked … and introduced algae to moss,

added moisture and cold,

turned the sun away for a season.

And smiled to see this old man’s beard,

this grey green confounder of taxonomists,

festooning the forest,

branched in silent celebration,

like so much self-renewing tinsel.

Friday 13 November 2009

Nice Weather For Ducks

[an excerpt from "the walking book"]

[a break in the weather?? Hollyford Face, Routeburn Track NZ]

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” - Charles Dudley Warner

Keeping the rain off while walking has been a puzzle for humans for a very long time. Tasmania’s Palawa people used to smear their bodies with whale or seal fat. It offered protection from both weather and insects. Mixed with ochre or charcoal it doubled as personal decoration. New Zealand’s Maori made a water resistant cloak called a pākē, using plant materials. Strands of raw flax were buried in the ground for some months to season, then woven very closely onto a plaited-fibre support. Alaska’s native peoples discovered long ago that seal guts could be expanded by pumping them full of air. Once dried, this membrane could be sown into garments that were remarkably good at keeping out rain and snow. Some even had hidden seams to prevent leaks – the original waterproof parka.

In my earliest bushwalking days a japara coat smeared with oil (the so-called oilskin) was the vaguely higher-tech version of those indigenous rain protectors. Oilskins were developed in the 19th century when sailors discovered that their sails could be waterproofed using a mixture of whale oil and linseed oil. Wave a jar of the 1970s oil under my nose and I am instantly transported back to my early bushwalking days. Like most bushwalkers of the time I was outfitted at the nearest army surplus store. Fashionable outdoor gear was an oxymoron back then. I covered my legs with oversized khaki woollen trousers, and in very cold conditions even wore woollen long-johns underneath. On top I wore a drab woollen jumper over a checked woollen shirt. Footwear comprised ex-army boots, woollen socks and canvas gaiters. I often added a hand-knitted woollen beanie, replaced later by a genuine Scottish tam-o-shanter (woollen, of course). By the late 1970s I had graduated from a khaki canvas A-frame haversack to a khaki canvas H-frame haversack. It still hangs in my garage, just in case.

Amazingly japaras are still around – in shops, not just in garages – although the new ones don’t require oiling. I gave mine up years ago and graduated to the “miracle fibres”. I got my first Gore-tex lined jacket in 1990. It took faith to believe that an invisible film of Mr Gore’s material – sandwiched between the outer and inner layers – would repel water droplets while allowing vapour to pass away from the body. I only dimly understood how it was supposed to work, but I did love to hear the salesman talk. I parted with more money than I could afford for that first generation Gore-tex jacket. Within a few years the same salesman pooh-hooed first generation jackets (“they had problems” he confided), and tried to sell me the second-generation version. I put up with the “problems” (you got wet when it rained) for a few more years. But when the third generation came along, I again parted with a week’s wages to try and stay dry while walking.

With about 40 years of bushwalking behind me, and poised somewhere between an H-frame and a zimmer frame, I have come to a slow-dawning realisation. The Holy Grail of rain jackets – one that is both waterproof and breathable – has yet to be found. If you simply stand out in rain for an hour or two, most rain jackets will keep you dry. Those with poor seam sealing will eventually let in water, but most will keep it out. That’s fine is you want to stand still, but put a full pack on your back, and strain and sweat uphill in driving wind and rain for a few hours, and the story will be different. No matter how waterproof the jacket; no matter how breathable the material, your perspiration, particularly where your straining back rubs against the pack, will eventually condense and start to get you wet. And then all you’ll be able to do is envy ducks until you reach shelter.

A walk on New Zealand’s Routeburn Track one spring, wearing an ageing 3rd generation Gore-tex jacket, provided ample support for my theory. The first day’s walk was actually a blissfully dry stroll, and the rainjacket remained stowed. We wandered up the uncannily blue, glacier fed Route Burn, through forests the spitting image of Tasmania’s myrtle forests. Our day ended at the spectacularly situated and rather palatial Routeburn Falls Hut, with balconies hanging over a steep and beautiful valley surrounded by sharp mountains and waterfalls. That evening, while taking in those breathtaking surroundings, I didn’t immediately make the connection between high stream flow, gushing waterfalls and the kind of weather needed to supply them.

But the next morning as we woke to the sound of wind and rain, and the sloosh of soggy snow sliding from the roof, we knew we were going to find out the hard way. From the falls the track takes you up over Harris Saddle (1255m) and into the truly alpine section of the walk. But on this day we could only guess at the height of the mountains around us, although having to walk in snow through an avalanche zone hinted at the precipitous nature of the slopes. The cloud lifted enough that we could at least see the delightfully dark Lake Harris, and swirling mists occasionally parted to reveal snow-dappled peaks. But for much of that day, all we knew was that somewhere out there through the rain, sleet and snow were the wonderful Darran Mountains, a beautiful woman veiled, where only the occasional flash of her eyes insinuated the whole.

We passed a guided group, guessed their leader by his gear and confident air, and I asked him to tell us what we were missing. He smiled through the rain and pointed to where Mt Tuteko should be, laconically adding “she’s beautiful, that one. Nearly 2800 metres.” I took his word for it and retreated under our hoods. After half a day of this I had begun to feel like a Gore-tex felafel. I plodded and sloshed, and puffed and strained, with water underfoot, water in my boots, and eventually, miracle membranes notwithstanding, water down my back. Waterproof and breathable proved to be relative terms out here.

Yet somehow I found this perversely enjoyable. We were out in pretty adverse conditions, but we weren’t keeling over. Despite all of those motherly and grandmotherly warnings to come in out of the rain, I was reaffirming that the stuff doesn’t actually kill you. Having been wet in four continents, having worn everything from a cheap plastic ponchos to the latest hi-tech coats, I was finding out afresh what ducks, our ancestors and Christopher Robin have known all along. Splashing about in water can be quite good fun. Of course finding a hut, putting on a set of dry clothes, and imbibing a hot drink help to keep it that way.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Dancing on Dolerite

[excerpt/draft material from "the walking book"]

[dolerite scree, Cradle Mountain]

They could never get me to sing. My parents tried, bribing me to sing “Within the Shady Thicket” with my sisters to Christmas aunties with names like Beryl, Tress and Eva. “Jazz” Buck, our somewhat militaristic music teacher at high school tried too, although his trick didn’t work. He got the class singing to a record and then walked around the room tapping a few of us on the head. I was chosen, though whether for detention or something else I didn’t know until the choir list came out. Me, in the choir? At a boys’ school, at the age of 12 or 13? My ears reddened at the very thought of it, and I swiftly arranged for my mother to come and bail me out. It was one of the few times I knew she was truly displeased with me, but I was not going to sing.

The trouble was I could sing. And now, do I regret not singing, and not taking music further? Of course I do. It is one of the most heart-lifting activities I know and a way of expressing your soul that has few peers. But as a shy boy trying to make his way in a school full of robust, rugby-loving males, singing just didn't seem an option.

These days music is virtually everywhere in my life. I work to music; relax to music; cook to music. My love of music led me to review music and to present a weekly music show on radio. Music even goes with me when I walk. Sometimes that is literal, as when I walk to work attached to my iPod.

Failing that it is in the form of what I call “head tunes”. These may be the musical equivalent of mad voices and of possible interest to a psychologist. But who hasn’t had one of those annoying tunes follow them around unbidden and unwanted? The Germans have coined a very apt word for it: ohrwurm – literally “ear worm”.

More usually, and very thankfully, my head tunes are of the welcome variety: music that I’ve heard recently that somehow fits with what I’m doing and pops back into my head as a kind of soundtrack for my life. Just occasionally, usually while doing a hard walk, I will even make up tunes. I don’t set out to do this, but something about the ambulatory rhythm, and perhaps the pleasure/pain of what’s involved in walking, resolves itself into musical form. When I’m in the bush my spirit is lifted – even if my body is burdened – and it looks for ways to express itself.

This shouldn’t surprise us, when we think of the working songs that have always helped people of all cultures to get through their daily chores. In Scottish Gaelic culture some of these are called waulking songs. Waulking involved stretching and proving cloth by pounding it against a board or trampling it with your feet. It was carried out by groups of women in Gaelic Scotland, particularly the Hebridean islands.

After more than a decade of presenting a Celtic music program on local community radio, a lot of the music in my own collection – and so in my head – is Irish and Scottish in origin. There seems to be something very true and real about the songs, jigs, slip jigs and reels that typify the music of the Gaels. Perhaps because of its origins in the ups and downs of simple life in remote and beautiful places, it lends itself perfectly to the moods and rhythms of walking – just as it once did for waulking.

Thankfully some waulking songs, especially those of the Hebridean islands, have been kept alive. Contemporary world/folk musicians like Scotland’s Capercaillie and Canada’s Mary Jane Lamond are among those who have both preserved and modernised such songs. Capercaillie even managed to get a waulking song into the UK Top 40 charts with their 1991 version of “Coisich A Ruin”. The more recent “Mile Marbhaisg” on 2003’s Choice Language illustrates this was no flash-in-the-pan. Gaelic culture isn’t in aspic where Capercaillie is concerned. So in the above song (which translates “A Thousand Curses”), they somehow manage to combine a funky, danceable Celtic swing with what I’m sure are savage lyrics. And yes, it makes a great walking “head tune”.

The Scottish dance known as the strathspey is another example. Originating in the Scottish highlands – in fact in my clan’s home territory – it has a complex 2/4 or 4/4 “dotted” rhythm. The short “Scots snap” notes can make it tricky to follow, but as a rhythm to accompany boulder hopping in the Tasmanian highlands, I could ask for nothing better. The tumbling, near-to-tripping feel of hopping across dolerite scree slopes seems to have found perfect musical incarnation in the strathspey. I’m always accompanied by a strathspey – internally if need be – when bounding over boulders.

Tuesday 27 October 2009


[a beautiful day in a beautiful place - with a sting in its tail!]

[Cradle Mountain reflected in Dove Lake]

At 1545 metres, Cradle Mountain is Tasmania’s fifth highest mountain. That’s not particularly high, even by Australian standards. But by those same standards it is a delightfully shaped mountain, satisfyingly “peaky”, and justly famous for its lopsided twin towers separated by a hammocky ridge, the whole often reflected in the flawless waters of Dove Lake.

I’ve succumbed to the appeal of its summit at least four times over the last three decades. Each climb has been different, but the most recent was more eventful than I’d have preferred.

Three of us were there – with dozens of others – on a rarely-perfect October day. There had been so much rain over winter and early spring that the creeks here had begun to flow clear instead of their normal beer colour, the tannins diluted to the point of invisibility. And if it wasn’t raining, wind and snow showers had gone to work. But on this day the weather gods had put aside their tools and gone for a smoko.

The mountain draws many walkers, not all of them ready for the challenge. We passed a number of walkers having difficulties with the steep dolerite scree that leads to a snowy amphitheatre beneath the final tower. One couple chose, not unanimously, to be satisfied with the northward view from the scree rather than the 360 degree summit vista. While there is nothing technically difficult about any of the scree, it does involve a certain amount of rough-house hauling of yourself up fridge-sized boulders. The contrast with the duck-boarded approach walk is too stark for some. On the other hand the dozens heading for the summit this day included children as young as seven or eight.

Once over the hump of the scree approach, there’s a steep side-slope to traverse. Except in the height of summer there is usually some snow here on the south-east facing slopes, over-towered as they are by tooth-like pillars of dolerite. The day was mild and sunny, so at this point the metre deep snow was soft and slushy. We took out trekking poles to help with balance and gingerly began to cross the side slope.

A year ago, almost to the day, I had paused here with my son and sons-in-law to slide down the forty degree snow slope in our wet weather gear. The few seconds of exhilaration had to be backed up by a far longer and more tedious slog back up the slope. Twice was enough for me, although some of the next generation tried it a few more times.

This time we were intent on the summit, so we by-passed the obvious sliding section. I was in front, and began to head up the very steep climbing chute, choosing to go to the left of a large rock. I remember gripping the rock with both hands, although one must have also been holding the trekking poles. From that semi-fixed position I kicked a step into the snow just beneath the boulder, and tested it briefly, before trying to heave myself upwards.

The step held only until I put real weight on it, then gave way, sending my left foot a metre lower than I was expecting it to be. That ripped my hands from the rock, flipped my feet skyward, and sent me careening backwards down the slope. I completed a one and a half backward somersault, landed on my back, then slid head first down the chute at what might have been described as an exhilarating pace. Did my life flash before me? Did I pray, or fling my arms over my head for protection? I quite honestly didn’t have time to do anything more than to think “Oh ... my head is likely to stop me by hitting a rock!” I’m not even sure an expletive popped into my mind, although I can think of a couple that would have been very suitable.

After a very rapid slide of maybe 25 metres, I stopped quite suddenly as my back – thankfully cradled by a day-pack – crashed into a suitcase-sized rock. I lay there, for the moment pain-free, thinking “ooh – I think I’m alright”. I then conveyed the same in response to Jim and Tim’s yelled query. Their next shouted words disconcerted me. “Don’t move!” Spinal injury? A huge drop just beneath me? No. “Gotta get a photo!" followed by “Bugger! Wish we’d got that in movie-mode.” Then I knew I was going to be okay.

A few careful minutes checking myself, talking with the boys, and righting myself, was followed by an extra cautious crawl up-slope to the start of the climbing chute. Twenty minutes later we were out on the summit - the sun shining, the breeze a mere zephyr - with me yabbering nineteen-to-the-dozen as you do when the adrenaline kicks in after even a mild shock.

And at the end I had no badge of honour, not even a decent bruise, to show for my troubles. Being joined on the summit by three youngish girls and their family seemed to underline that we had done nothing even slightly heroic. I think I can get over that. Two days later, such thoughts are already being replaced by a strong thankfulness that I was somehow cradled during my fall. I will live to walk another day, God willing!

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Words That Paint Pictures

[Essay introducing the Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize 2009. Published in Island #118]

What if life really did imitate art? What if each of us was to throw a painter’s canvas over the place we lived? What expression of our place, our life in that place, would fill that canvas? Would it be only the universals of modern urban life: the concrete and cars; plasma screens and iPods; mobile phones and plush furnishings that are found anywhere human prosperity has reached? Would our canvas not also contain the colours of the earth beneath our feet; the dark fleeting dash of the wild creatures we share our place with; and the variegated textures of the plants that respond to the particular seasons and soils of our particular place? Wouldn’t we want to record the sudden colour splash and sound of the birds that flit and flutter through our bushes; or the whisper, whoosh and wash of the particular weather that is present only here?

The Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize was conceived in 2002 to provide an outlet for the very particular and concrete thoughts and feelings writers have about the natural world. Not just any natural world, but the particular part of the world they have thought on, interacted with and cared enough about to express in words.

Since the first biennial prize in 2003, around three hundred individuals have entered the Wildcare prize; nearly half of that number in the 2009 event. The prize has tapped into a feeling that seems to be abroad in our land: the feeling that here, in the early years of the 21st century, we Australians are finally ready to write our places into a new kind of existence. We seem eager to record in words the feelings and thoughts about being in this land that have only slowly come to the surface. It now appears important for us to read our landscape; to know our place; and to celebrate the particularity of where we live.

It’s not that disgruntlement with our leaders or perceptions of threat – the traditional motivators of environmentally-slanted writing – have gone away. Clearly the mainstream 'success' of environment as an issue, and the plethora of spin about 'clean and green', haven’t assuaged the concerns of writers. But something else is happening that is both beneath and beyond the world of headlines and politics. At last place is about more than postcodes, real estate values and the cache of locality names.

My own place is near the base of a collapsed layer cake, geologically speaking at least. It’s a cake that was baked over some 280 million years out of whatever ingredients fell to hand. Right where I sit the available element was mud; just above here it was sand, and top-most it was magma – three hundred metres of it – injected up through layers of previously ‘cooked’ sediment. Not a conventional way to ice a cake, nor a standard thickness. But whoever designed Tasmania had an inordinate fondness for dolerite.

The collapse of the cake has been barely noticeable on a human time scale. Nonetheless it has crumbled, and will continue to do so. A large scoop of cake was taken out of the mountain’s side just above here by ice as recently as ten thousand years ago. The tell-tale swale is an unmistakeable signature of ice. Vertical scars through the forest show the tracks of more recent major rock falls. Occasionally crumbs still fall from the mountain’s table, with dolerite boulders turning up even here in suburban Hobart.

To keep reading my place, I must augment the geological timescale with the much shorter-spanned biological ones. I learn that when the Permian mudstone was just ooze being washed into the Tasmania Basin, there were no flowering plants. Conifers, cycads, algae, lichens and mosses impeded the erosive running water, with bits of plants joining the shells in becoming fossils. It wasn’t until that basin had been filled, buried, hardened, and lifted back to an altogether unrecognisable surface that the rock saw its first flowering plants.

Over aeons wave upon wave of varied vegetation adjusted to the different climates, latitudes and altitudes that this mudstone has seen. Until today the shallow, impoverished regolith and soil that it produces, brings forth not the spectacular rainforests than can grow on richer soils in this climate, but instead a gnarled and humble woodland of silver peppermint, Eucalyptus tenuiramis. A spacious, easily traversed forest with crackling, straggly undergrowth, so quintessentially Australian that I half expect to find a Roberts or McCubbin character propped against a trunk, billy boiling, handing me a cuppa.

Above us Tasmania’s green rosellas might be feeding on seeds, chuckling and sweetly tinkling, reminding me why I always think of them as bell parrots. If disturbed their relaxed calling would be replaced by their more excited flight/fright call 'cussick cussick'. Are they perturbed by clinking currawongs flying low through the trees? In this stealth mode, currawongs are more intent on finding prey than drawing attention to their presence. By contrast when our apple crop is near to ripe there is no such silence. Their loud ringing calls spread the news to the whole flock.

Such are a few tiny daytime fragments I might read in my local bush. But if I’m tempted to think I’ve gained a degree of familiarity, night-time confounds me. After dark this bushland takes on a wholly foreign character. Were I adept at reading with my nose, as my dog certainly is, I could more readily comprehend the pages of this crepuscular life. Instead I’m left to look at the tracks and traces it leaves behind. Potoroo and pademelon runways; bandicoot diggings; scats, frass, fur and feathers: clues to a twilit life. They remind me how close to bio-illiterate I am, despite nearly a quarter of a century of living in and looking at the one piece of bush.

All of this may explain why nature writing is a hard-won form. Yes, any good writer should be able to write about the natural world. But to do it successfully, to do it in a way that rings true, requires the same kind of observational commitment that writers put into character, plot or sentence structure.

This year’s prize-winning pieces illustrate well the benefits of such toil. Whether describing human efforts to restore what once was, nature’s gentle irruptions into tangled urban lives, or the perils faced by all life forms, the felicity of the writing cloaks the observational labour involved. How encouraging that so many are so effectively taking on this labour of love.

Friday 2 October 2009

Finding Whirinaki

[written following a visit to the central North Island of New Zealand, September 2009]

Place names can ring like a bell, although the reasons for this may vary. I once lived near towns whose names I delighted in reciting: Cookamidgera, Mandagery, Mugincoble. The last, pronounced “Muh-JINK-a-bull”, was also a railway town, giving its nomenclature an onomatopoeic perfection.

For passing generations, Passchendaele and Pearl Harbour evoked the opposite of delight, and for some of my generation Lake Pedder still carries a plangent, melancholy note. Across the Tasman Sea Lake Manapouri and Whirinaki Forest sound all the sweeter for what might have happened there.

Whirinaki (the “Wh” is pronounced as a “F”) has long fascinated me. But it is early spring 2009 before I am finally going there. 25 years have passed since the logging ceased. It’s a clear and sun-filled day, and I’m in the company of Joe Doherty, a respected elder of the local Ngai Tuhoe Maori tribe. He and his family run Te Urewera Treks here in the eastern Bay of Plenty area, in the central North Island of New Zealand. Today I have Joe one-on-one.

On the drive up he is as happy speaking about his Irish ancestry as his long and local Maori heritage. But when we reach Whirinaki, the first thing he does is stop and pray in Maori. Or at least that’s my take on the Maori invocation or karakia. He pauses at the forest portal, explaining that he will acknowledge the creator and the spirit of the forest, and ask them to welcome us to this place. His voice is deep and his tone reverent, but the words scarcely penetrate the forest, seeming to be absorbed by the foliage.

We step into the ancient podocarp forest, once dubbed a dinosaur forest by David Bellamy because its ancestor trees were around in the Jurassic. If Joe’s prayer hadn’t already done it, the still, quiet and darkly green place would have quickly awed me. Great vaulting trunks of rata and rimu; matai and miro; totara and kahikatea burst from dense and deeply green fern glades. The sometimes fissured trunks are covered with delicate-leafed creepers and climbing ferns; the upper branches festooned with hitch-hiking epiphytes.

When Charles Darwin first stepped into a Brazilian rainforest, his breath was similarly taken away. “Sublime devotion (was) the prevalent feeling”, he reported, describing:

Twiners entwining twiners — tresses like hair — beautiful lepidoptera — Silence — hosannah.

For us there are no butterflies, but the hosannahs of kaka cascade down from the tree tops, part parrot-scratch, part song-bird melody. All else is muffled – our footsteps, our conversation – as though in a cathedral. As Joe quietly explains his karakia, it confirms my sense of its closeness to prayer. Surely part of prayer is a humbling and grateful recognition of powers far greater than the human.

I pause to wonder why I, as a Christian, do not stop to make this sort of acknowledgement in similar places. Walking through this botanical wonder, I also ponder how Christian notions of sin might apply to the destruction of the great majority of New Zealand’s podocarp forests. In 1947 the New Zealand Forest Service saw it in different terms, summing up with chilling pragmatism that "dairy farming demands such land (and timber) in the national interest and kahikatea forests are therefore impossible."
Against such a backdrop Whirinaki is a miraculous survivor; a virtual tree museum in national terms; a small arboreal throw-back. Today it is surrounded by a vast acreage of pine and eucalypt plantation, tree farms that deaden mile after mile of the drive down SH1 from Auckland to Wellington.

I first drove that road in the early 1970s, a wide-eyed and gormless Australian student on a fleeting visit. But even then I had a sense that the heart was missing from this countryside. Here in Whirinaki, 35 years later, might I have found its still-beating pulse? Here at least, the wonder of water and soil are still in the service of what has grown and flown here since the dinosaurs. As Joe tells me about the long human connections here, the picture widens. I gain a glimpse of a living system of plants and animals; humans and landforms, that indicate it’s even more than just the botanical heart of New Zealand’s North Island. We can have a place in the forests too. Darwin’s hosannah fits Whirinaki.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Messiness Works

[extract from a short story about a Dutchman in the Tasmanian bush]

A weak sun lit the campsite. Fresh animal droppings were the only obvious sign of visitors. Henk leaned out of his tent to look beyond the patch of forest and into the scrub. The dewy bushes were draped in careless strands of web. To call them spider webs would be to make a silk purse of them. There seemed no pattern to them, let alone the perfect spiral symmetry spiders were supposed to have embedded in what passed for their brains. Instead every branch or stem seemed to be connected to the next by this random optimism of a million spiders. And it worked! The webs obviously worked, because every path Henk had taken to get there was criss-crossed with spider strands.

He’d come to realise that in this country, messiness worked. Or at least what he had taken for messiness. Every square yard of the bush was literally crawling with life. It didn’t fit with European notions of beauty, but did that make it ugly? This beholder's eye had come to see its sly beauty. He appreciated its wild fecundity, every prickle, stick or bud with its own grace and purpose. Time and isolation the parents of unique and ingenious survival.

Most of his own people had never seen this. From Abel Tasman on they had really only been visitors. Even those who lived a lifetime here had been tourists not natives. And they had brought up their children in the same way. But the Dutch weren't alone in this. He thought of the English. Hah, the English! Who looked on eucalypt forest as grey, monotonous and fearful. Those early explorers were tourists too, hating the bush for not being park-like, for not having the deciduous beauty of their motherland.
He wondered if they had ever seen, really seen the spring blush of new leaf tips on the gums. Golden on the bluegum, ruddy on the stringybark. Strong, vibrant colours whose only mistake was not to fall to the earth in one season. If they wanted autumn colours, had they never seen the riotous hues of a freshly shed trunk? And what of the sights and sounds of the forest’s multiculture of birds, insects, bats, marsupials and reptiles? Had they seen or heard that? Or had they smelled the heady tang of wattle and sassafras in spring; the clean bite of freshly fallen bluegum leaves; the indescribable pungency of wet earth after a long dry?

Thursday 27 August 2009

Walking Like Water

[a new and experimental piece, potentially for my walking book]

It is my habit, practice perhaps, to walk the five and a half kilometres from home to work every day.

The first few times it felt a very long way. It was months before I did it more than a couple of days a week, and then only in fine weather. I’ve now been at it for over a decade, and tend to walk it every week day, whatever the weather. I find that on the days I don’t walk, I feel sluggish all morning.

Walking gets my blood flowing, starts my brain ticking over, helps shift mental roadblocks. It has become a kind of meditation for me – a great steadier, a creator of perspective, a moving still-point in a sometimes complex life.

Each week day I walk away from the mountain – often with a germ of regret that I’m not walking the other way – and with the flow of the Hobart Rivulet towards town. This is Australia, where creeks and even rivers often fail to flow, yet in 23 years of living in this catchment, I have never seen the flow stop. It’s why the earliest white settlement of southern Tasmania shifted from the drier eastern shore of the Derwent to this wetter western shore. The waters flowing from the cloud-rich mountain are plentiful and reliable.

The Hobart Rivulet is a narrow, brief, rushing thing, literally cobbled together from dolerite boulders torn off the crumbling flanks of the mountain. Steep-banked, scrubby-sided, pocked and youthful, it is a duckling with few prospects of a serene swanhood. We get along companionably.

One morning, walking alongside Cascade Gardens, I glance left towards the Rivulet where its usually cobbled course is smoothed and funnelled into a concrete race that plunges into a broad concrete pond. The pond has a large metal grate on the townward side which jags boulders and logs, reducing the risk of flooding downstream.

But this particular morning, as the jouncy, glistening water courses over the elevated race towards the pond, what catches my eye is that I am moving at the same tempo as the water: both of us flowing from mountain to sea at the speed of water.

The phrase “at the speed of water” makes me smile. I’m aware that the speed of light is fixed and known, but what of the speed of water? I walk on, the thought coming with me. Maybe I haven’t just walked like water this particular morning. Perhaps I am always walking like water.

When I’m exhausted, slowed to a trickle like ooze through the peat of the south-west; boulder hopping with glee down a dolerite scree; making plain progress through duck-boarded buttongrass; trudging and huffing towards yet another false summit; resting still as a pool during a welcome pause from walking; all my movements and thoughts, inward, upward, downward, sideward, outward, sometimes vapour thin, sometimes glacially solid and slow, have something of the fluid about them.

At a purely physiological level, I recognize that there’s plenty of water within me. The human body is made up of between 60% and 70% water. In fact a new-born baby is 78% water: amazing and fancified water, but H20 nonetheless.

And like water, I am restless even in rest. I find whispers of the eternal in the water cycle: evaporation bearing rumours of resurrection; freezing and thawing mumbling of metamorphosis.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

A Thylacine Sighting

[a previously unpublished account of a thylacine sighting in Tasmania's Central Highlands]

The year is 1980. A friend – I’ll call him Ewan – is waking from a night’s sleep in the back of his VW Combi van. It is winter in Tasmania's Central Highlands, but the snow is as sparse as the tree cover near the lakeside shack. It is a clear, cloudless morning, sharp as a tart apple. Ewan’s wife Catriona is already up, starting a fire and possibly breakfast in the adjacent shack.

The rear door of the van is open. Ewan lies in bed, facing the scene outside. Though reading, a part of him is also contemplating the chilly gap between the van and breakfast. At the edge of his vision there is a movement. He lowers the book, and finds himself looking straight at a tiger – a Tasmanian tiger or thylacine that is. He pauses long enough to think, “I don’t believe this … thylacines are extinct”, then suspends his disbelief and simply watches as the dog-sized marsupial carnivore picks its way easily across the grassy ground near the shack. It is less than 20 metres away, moving slowly, nose to the ground, perhaps sniffing for food scraps.

Ewan is a fine photographer; he also knows that his story will be scarcely credible. Yet to take his eyes off the tiger, to reach behind the front seat for his camera will be to miss an experience that few living people have ever had. He watches for perhaps 2 minutes as it moves nonchalantly across his field of view, coming to within 10 metres of the van.

He has seen the stuffed thylacine in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. And he’s watched old footage of the last tiger to die in captivity – in Hobart Zoo in 1936. The one he is now watching is more compact, slimmer, and rather more supple than that. “It didn’t look as ancient” he later recalls. But the characteristic stripes on its haunches and the rather rigidly held tail are unmistakable. This is no dog.

Eventually the tiger moves on. It shows no sign that it’s aware of Ewan’s presence. Having other things to see and do, it simply walks over a small rise and out of Ewan’s life.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Roger Deakin – An Appreciation

[a piece written following the death of Roger Deakin, the great English nature/place writer. September 2006]

[Roger Deakin in The Labyrinth, Tasmania - prior to an obligatory swim!]

While Roger Deakin was a staunch parochialist, and a champion of the particular, the ripples of his life and death will nonetheless reach far beyond Suffolk and England. As they have reached me here in Tasmania, Australia's wild island, the former van Diemen's Land of convict infamy. It was here that I met Roger while he was researching "Wildwood". Tasmania fascinated him both as a place where apples are synonymous with the island - many still call it "the Apple Isle" - and as a place where wild forests are under dire threat from human action.

I took Roger into the wilds of the Tasmanian highlands, to a place called Pine Valley. It was wonderful to share this special wild place with someone so passionate about and attuned to the natural world. I recall his sense of wonder as we walked out of typical Australian eucalypt forest into an altogether more ancient forest. "Like walking through a door into old Gondwana" I explained as we exulted in the mossy green darkness of a rare coniferous rainforest whose nearest relations are in Patagonia and Fiordland. After we reached the basic hut that was to be our base for the next few days, Roger made it his duty to keep the coal-fired stove alight. He excelled to the extent that the little iron stove glowed red-hot, and fellow lodgers had to peel layers or exit sleeping bags to prevent overheating.

The next day we went higher into the mountains, to the lake-studded 1400m high plateau known as The Labyrinth. There we ambled between tarns, at one stage sitting at a viewing point high above some of the remotest wilderness in Tasmania. Our 360 degree view took in everything for many miles around. Yet there was not one single road; no cleared land; no man-made structures; no smoke, town, city or building: nothing but wild lands for mile after mile. He was amazed that such wildness still existed in the "civilized" world. I sensed he may have even struggled with the concept that the management of this place has as much to do with leaving it be as it does with "improving" it. That English urge came out in his occasional farmerly suggestions about track maintenance or tree pruning. We had a good natured debate about that human desire to intervene in nature.

But what a privilege for me, as a then unpublished nature writer, to have had such a companion for 3 uninterrupted days. Roger spoke wisely and helpfully about writing, and encouragingly about my efforts at it. His enthusiasm and generosity continued as we kept in touch via email. He provided me with some wonderful suggestions in the nature writing field, and in turn took up a few suggestions I passed his way. As a huge fan of "Waterlog" - a book I had read before I knew Roger - it is his final watery exploits in Tasmania that will remain in my memory. On a cool spring day, with melting snow still lying around on The Labyrinth, Roger couldn't resist the urge to plunge into one of the highland tarns and swim an icy lap. He emerged grinning, refreshed and ready for more mischief. So at the end of our walk, as we waited for the ferry to return us to our car, he repeated the dose in beautiful Lake St Clair. Although we were at a much lower altitude, the lake is Australia's deepest, and it can scarcely have been any warmer. (And for the record, at the former he was informal, at the latter he wore his swimming suit!)

Later, as the ferry brought us into the jetty, I pointed out a snow-clad peak named Mt Rufus. Roger's eyes lit up, and he asked if I could take a photograph of it in honour of his son Rufus. That tiny glimpse of fatherly tenderness made me esteem even more a man, a writer and an activist about whom there was already so much to admire. And now I will return to Roger's work with a sorrow-tinged enthusiasm, just as I will join the queue of those longing to read his last book as soon as it is published.

[PS - "Wildwood" and "Notes from Walnut Farm" were both published after Roger's death, and are currently available. His previous book "Waterlog" is also still available.]

Monday 10 August 2009

A Tiger's Prayer

[Tasmania's least prolific poet ... that's me. Here's a recent one.]

A Tiger's Prayer

Once I fancied I heard your voice, feathered by the wind,
Wordless, or beyond my tin ear to decipher.
Always you were at the edge of sound, the verge of sight
A whisper, a shadow, a plangent absence.

But now I see you pickled in a jar,
My hairless, heirless little fellow worshipper
Head bowed, eyes closed, paws together
And I know that it was your prayer I heard.

Thursday 6 August 2009

An Old Head

[some fiction for a change. Part of an old, unfinished story, I wrote this episode following a particularly vivid dream.]

None of it had gone the way Siobhan thought it would. Typically she'd argued with her mother just before they'd arrived. She couldn't even remember what about, just the muffled feeling, as real as hands around her throat. "Until you show you're old enough ..." She'd wanted to scream. Even now she wanted to run away, but the whole family was already on the run. And short of stealing a boat, she had no way of escaping.

So the introductions hadn't gone well. In fact Siobhan had to admit she'd been a little pig ... maybe even a big one. It hadn't helped that she didn't precisely know why they'd come here. She only knew that these people were some kind of secret religious community, and that her father had visited here before the Trouble. "These are God's people Siobhan. People of the Spirit" he'd said, putting on that earnest "spiritual" tone he used from the pulpit. It was tainted with a faint American inflexion, as if "Gard" lived in Kansas when off-duty.

She supposed her behaviour would be the topic of more conversation among the islanders, and probably earnest prayer too. When she'd said as much to her mother the reply had been a surprisingly tart "Grow up!", and her mother had stomped off. Siobhan knew that the usual form in their family demanded an apology. When she chose not to, she fell into an unwelcome hole of isolation and insecurity. Even some attention from her brother Sam would have been welcome. But he knew the form too. Coventry was not open to visitors.

It was an island girl who offered the way out. For the whole time she'd been there Siobhan had tried to ignore all the islanders' excited talk about some ritual they were having soon. But when Ginny-Waruppi directly asked her to come, she was relieved to have an excuse. Ginny was about her own age - a "tweenager" as her father called her ad nauseum. She had tightly-curled brownhair a shade darker than her skin, and prominent teeth. She also had a reticent manner and a very faint voice, though this might have just been caution in the face of Siobhan's notoriety. In a silence broken only by the swish of the grass and the swash of the sea, Ginny led her along a grassy track away from the town and towards a stand of twisted gums. Others too were coming from various directions to the same spot.

The clearing was in a swale about fifty metres from the ocean beach. It had a sandy floor mostly clear of grass, and a large central fire-pit surrounded by ridges of blackened shells and bones. Into this area were crammed dozens of people, all standing, all half-looking at Siobhan. For the first time she noticed that it was only women. The men, even her father and Sam, were apparently not allowed. Siobhan swallowed, and looked around for her mother. She was standing nearby, among a group of women outside the central circle. Siobhan sought reassurance, but her mother's face remained set. She made only a slight motion towards the women with her head. Watch ... listen.

Siobhan turned away quickly, feeling a tremble on her bottom lip, and a cold-water tightness in her stomach. She tried to rekindle anger with her mother - anger was easier than tears - but she couldn't cope with it today. It felt too much like betrayal. She recalled that time when, as a little school girl, she'd thrown away the lunch her mother had made. When her mum had asked her how she'd liked her sandwich, she'd lied about it. But the sick feeling of betrayal had put her off her favourite tea that night. And after that she'd eaten every sandwich her mother ever gave her, stale vegemite and soggy tomato alike, all to avoid hurting her mother. Or was it to avoid her own unpleasant feelings - the feeling of being a traitor? It was a new thought, a dangerous thought, that she was somehow responsible for her own feelings.It was easier to think that you just reacted to what other people said and did.

"Watch. Listen. Show you're old enough. Grow up!"

The island women were standing in a loose multicoloured knot, their cardigans, jumpers, coats hugged around their swaying bodies as they talked. After a time she noticed that their voices were rising and falling rhythmically, almost in a chant. One voice would lead out, the others would follow, then three or four might recite something together, and the single voice - mostly that of Mother Maisie - would take the thought back to the group. It was, Siobhan realised, a sung debate.

She could make nothing of their dialect, but the snatched glances of one or two of the younger women told her that she was the subject of contention. As the last of the singing died away in the dewy evening air, Siobhan shuddered. Something had been decided. It was Mother Maisie who eventually broke away from the group and rode their eyes towards the two white women. She was smiling a gentle smile, looking steadily into the younger one's eyes. Her old eyes were wet with tears.

The details of the evening ceremony blurred in Siobhan's memory when she later tried to recall them. But the central event itself remained stark. There had been talk, a kind of briefing she supposed, but it had meant nothing. She had been too frightened to hear, too fearful to ask anything. There was singing again, this time in a more formal circle.

Ginny-Waruppi had taken up the guitar. She'd strummed inexpertly, but it was enough to signal the others to start another slower chant. At first it was faultingly sung, as though half-forgotten. As it traced its circular pattern back to the start, the singing became fuller, though hardly louder. Then Siobhan began to notice more complexities in what she had thought was just a simple chant. Despite herself she took one part into her mind, weaving it in and out of the central theme. Its simple beauty was so affecting that she almost forgot her fear, until Mother Maisie abruptly raised her voice in a high wail.

It unquestionably signalled the end of the song. At the same time the big elder moved forward and took Siobhan firmly by the shoulders. She stiffened as she was drawn into the centre of the ring. There Maisie gave her a tight formal embrace. As she was released Siobhan wobbled, spreading her feet in the sandy dirt to keep from falling. When she looked up, Maisie was standing toe to toe with her. She realised they were the same height, though any comparison ended there. There was no time to think. From somewhere the large woman produced a coat, which she began draping over Siobhan's shoulders, lifting her arms to put them inside those of the coat. It was ridiculously big for her, until Maisie slid her own arms inside the same sleeve, left arm to right arm, right arm to left arm. More distracting was the sensation of being forced against the woman's vast bosom.

As someone drew the coat around the two of them, and buttoned it tightly behind the older woman, her own tiny breasts were lost in Mother Maisie's. Siobhan felt her ears burn with embarrassment, also felt the warm not-unpleasant breath of Maisie, and heard the beginnings of a new chant. She didn't know where to look. The tight swaddling gave her little choice. She couldn't turn to see her own mother, who must have been somewhere behind her. When she finally gave in and looked at the eyes that were barely a handspan away, she suddenly stopped feeling embarrassed.

The eyes were the deepest brown, so dark that there was little distinction between pupil and iris. More than that the eyes were full of compassion. There was great strength and great sorrow in those eyes, enough to cower any girl. But instead they showed an understanding of this girl, as if they had seen all that Siobhan had seen, and much more besides. As they stood thus, Mother Maisie clasped hands with Siobhan, lacing their fingers together as if in a final act of union. The girl no longer wanted to lookaway, certainly not out of bashfulness. But a heavy-lidded weariness came over her, and she found the song drifting her into a trance. Pictures began to form in her mind, as vivid and tangy as salt spray, but despite all effort, her eyes fell shut.

The chanting song is diminishing. There are stronger impressions. She is young and barefoot. It is summer, she is at the beach, surrounded by black children, though there seems nothing remarkable about that. Nothing remarkable about her own skin being black either. Only for an instant does she feel a variance in the way her heart beats; the texture of what her eyes see and her hands touch.

The scene changes. It is dark, inside a hut. She is being told about something important by someone she loves, though she can see no face. She feels something warm running down one leg, hears some gentle old laughter, some sharp words to a male enquiry. She realises she is having her first bleed. Again there is a change. The loved voices are gone. In the distance loud noises, the sound of fire, wailing. Then silence. She is crying, then turning to find a white man standing over her. She has never seen such a look in anyone's eyes. He laughs like ice. There is a gun slung over his back. He points to it, grinning, then falls onto her.

There is more weeping, long unconsoled weeping. Then finally more warm voices, more love - though the special voices are gone, silenced. All but the oldest one, which now whispers what it can. About the time, when it comes. About the pain. O the pain. The swelling rhythmical fanfare of the awaited one. Which comes through the pain with its own lusty blare. She rests, then feeds, feeling the tiny mouth tug at her nipple. She smiles palely at the unwanted but loved child, drifts into the sleep of exhaustion. When she turns to seek him again, he is gone. Her breasts fill as her heart bursts. No weeping is enough.

But then he comes. The one whose love gives her back her heart. He who is the first and last to kiss her. A drunken rascal too many times, but gentle always. He kisses her now just like the first time, and she feels warm in secret places.

The gentle sounds of the midnight sea woke Siobhan. Wherever she was, whatever had happened to her, felt like a dream. But it had been more. Remembering that much, Siobhan turned over, moaning as if in expectation of more pain. Instead her hair was stroked, and she was being gathered up like a little child, and pulled alongside her mother, who was hugging her with protective ferocity. There was no talk, just the wordless crooning and comforting she had once known. When she was a girl.

* * *